Webinar: Can South Asia work together to combat climate change?

Ahead of COP26, our panellists explore opportunities to address South Asia’s most pressing environmental issues through cross-border cooperation

South Asia is witnessing unprecedented impacts of climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme weather events, climate-induced migration, widespread crop failures and dramatic shifts in biodiversity. Despite slowing down during the pandemic, global carbon emissions have continued to rise over the past two years. After the protracted public health crisis shifted attention and resources towards tackling Covid-19, climate change is now back on the agenda with greater urgency. 

Countries have so far failed to harness the potential of pre-existing attempts to foster regional cooperation. Frameworks such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are failing to deliver, and cross-border tensions are holding back progress in environmental policy and scientific research. The combined disruptive forces of climate change and the global public health crisis have created a unique opportunity to focus on a green recovery and accelerate the transition to more sustainable systems. 

Ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, The Third Pole explored the role of regional cooperation in creating an alternative climate diplomacy model, identifying past failures and new opportunities for dialogue and climate action on the ground. We were joined by leading experts and champions from across South Asia and beyond, to debate the utility of current targets and the role of ‘net-zero’ as a useful goal to drive real transformation. Our speakers highlighted possible avenues for progress and renewed focus, including data and information-sharing, and the use of collaborative research as a catalyst that could unify researchers across borders.


Malik Amin Aslam, environment minister of Pakistan, climate change envoy of the prime minister
Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister of India, MP, chair of parliamentary committee on science, technology & environment
Jennifer Morgan, executive director, Greenpeace International
Sanjay Vashisht, coordinator, Climate Action Network South Asia
Pema Gyamtsho, director-general, ICIMOD
Ken O’Flaherty, regional COP26 Ambassador to Asia-Pacific and South Asia, FCDO
Dechen Tsering, regional director, UNEP Asia and Pacific

Key excerpts

Ken O’Flaherty:

08:42: “On clean energy […] our objectives could be really quite quickly advanced through regional trading agreements and transmission infrastructure that would enable the export of clean energy from surplus regions to where it’s needed. For example, the Central Asia-South Asia Power Project – commonly known as CASA-1000 – will export hydropower from Central Asia to South Asia.”

09:11: “My key message would be that cooperation delivers results. We have to demonstrate through good research and analysis that South Asian cooperation on these issues can lead to win-win outcomes that benefit everyone, and that will allow leaders to stake political capital on their success. In terms of where to focus, I’d say that cooperation on environmental issues like air pollution might offer promising ground for cooperation in a region where it sometimes has historically been difficult. Perhaps cooperation on climate and environmental issues could even pave the way for cooperation on other more contentious issues by building trust and showing that cooperation can deliver results and benefits for all parties.”

Jairam Ramesh:

27:53: The concept of net-zero today is somewhat a bogus concept. What you’re saying is that you’re putting in as much as you’re taking out […] Do we have the technology today for taking it out today? […] I am more interested in the immediate milestones. I am sorry to say that the milestones of Paris have yet to be fulfilled. These COPs are basically exercises for keeping people in business, for making countries feel good about themselves. Frankly, it’s reached the limits of its utility [….] We should really have a hard look at the structure we have for arriving at decisions.”

1:36:46: “The immediate priority is to get countries to act within their borders, to have environmental laws, regulations, standards and institutions. Enforce those laws, enforce those standards and speak from a position of actual implementation. It’s very easy to be part of global meetings without having a track record at home. There is a dichotomy I see in India itself. We want to be international leaders when it comes to the environment, but what is our own track record when it comes to environmental management? The focus should really be on holding governments accountable to the commitments they’ve made, to the laws they have enacted. We should keep trying, we should keep at it, we should strengthen institutions such as ICIMOD and make use of well-wishers in the world. We have to move on multiple strands.”

Malik Amin Aslam:

37:48: Do we really need regional cooperation to move forward? No, we don’t need regional cooperation to move forward, but it is something that is absolutely required on some aspects of climate adaptation, for instance glacial melt, watersheds in the north […] What happens in the northern part of India very quickly affects Pakistan also. We need to have at least at the minimum level a coordinated information-sharing mechanism so that we have the early warning systems to save our people when disaster strikes.

38:25: “For other things, we don’t need regional cooperation to move forward, we can do without it. For instance, planting trees – you can do it on your own, you can do it individually, you can do it as a government. Pakistan has taken the choice of focusing on nature-based solutions. In the post-Covid era we used this as a green stimulus for Pakistan and we gave away one lakh [100,000] jobs to people who were protecting nature and also at the same time getting green jobs for doing that. We are focusing on a 10 billion tree initiative, right from the mangroves in the south. It is helping us combat sea-level rise and sea tsunamis […] We are also expanding our scrub forest and alpine forests in the north and of course all of this is giving us green jobs […] Through the past eight months alone we have increased our national parks by 50%.”

Jennifer Morgan:

55:50: “The pandemic has really forced us as a collective to fundamentally change our behaviour in a very short period of time and I think it has really shown us that climate change doesn’t have a nationality, doesn’t have an agenda or a political affiliation, and can really only be solved by cooperation. It’s nature’s wake-up call to us and shows how interconnected we are to nature […] This disruption creates openings in South Asia and other parts of the world to build a more resilient regional community to actually overcome the injustice and the root causes of climate change while also resolving the health crisis.”

59:30: “The climate justice part of this conversation is so fundamental and it’s being held back by multi-layered inequality found not only in the region, but within countries and of course globally […] We need a concerted effort to build alternative approaches, practices, policies that actually address the inequalities as well on the regional level, national level and a local level.”

Sanjay Vashisht:

01:04:33: “The biggest challenge on one side is the race to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We fell back on mining more fossil fuels. Ideally what it should have been was how to phase out fossil fuels and phase in renewable energy. If there can be partnerships between countries on gas pipelines from the Middle East […] why can’t there be a partnership on a renewable energy regional grid. These are the aspirations of civil society in South Asia.” 

01:07:04: “Another threat is climate-induced migration. People are losing livelihoods, they are losing lives. Frequent disasters, extreme disasters, one after the other. It’s one punch after another punch […] Certainly as South Asia we need to come together to make sure there is legal protection. First address the situation in-situ, make sure livelihoods are sustainable, then if that is still unliveable, then better to respond at the destination level also.

Dechen Tsering: 

01:13:10: “If I were to look at South Asia, what I’m seeing is the leaders of South Asia committed to climate change […] We saw Pakistan launch the decade for ecosystem restoration with the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’. We had India in 2019 host the Desertification Conference of Parties, so you’re seeing a lot of action on the ground. Where I see South Asia – and if I compare it to other subregions in Asia Pacific – is they’re not able to mobilise global financing. There is a deficit. So I think this is an area we should start to look at: how do we start to mobilise international financing for critical areas for climate adaptation and climate mitigation? Most of it is happening at home from national budgets.” 

 01:19:16: “As a former negotiator, I would really like the Least Developed Countries Group to start to work with statistical organisations and to bring work that is done by planning and finance agencies and the climate ministries and environment ministries closer together. If we’re not able to get data with statistical organisations, we’re not able to track data and we’re not going to get the national budget allocations. I know that international financing is important, but at the end of the day it’s the national budgets. We have to mobilise pressure within countries; I would really like to see the LDC chair bring together the work on Sustainable Development Goals. Climate can’t be a separate track. We have to look at prosperity, the economy – you need to bring them all together. We can’t be something ‘boutiquey’. Climate action cannot be dependent on international resources. It has to come from national budgets, has to be sustainable public procurement, it has to be within national frameworks.”

Pema Gyamtsho: 

01:25:28: “Air pollution is transboundary, it’s regional. The causes and effects of pollution are felt across the region. The smoke that rises from the foothills, deposits of black carbon and dust particles on the snow and ice on the mountains… When the snow and ice melt, the floods do not stop at the border, so it is transboundary in nature. We need to have a platform for sharing information and sharing data.” 

1:26:31: “ICIMOD has started working on improving the air quality and reducing air pollution and carbon emissions. We have started working on the brick kilns to make them more environmentally friendly in terms of reducing carbon emissions. From Nepal this technology – now called ZigZag technology – has gone to Pakistan, and Pakistan has taken it up in a big way. They have plans to convert the whole brick industry to ZigZag technology, which would mean a substantial reduction in carbon emissions.”